The King’s Speech

on Oct 30 in News by

Abbaye aux Hommes, built by William, Duke of Normandy, in 1063, and site of his burial

When Britain, Canada, and the USA, formed the D-Day landing forces that liberated Normandy, it was the Queen’s father, King George VI (played by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech) who was the Commander in Chief of the British and Canadian forces. He was also the Duke of Normandy. These Duke’s of Normandy have had a remarkable impact upon European history.

Amongst the cataclysmic events that shook the world in the 1920’s and 1930’s were Mussolini coming to power in Italy in 1922, and Hitler becoming Germany’s Chancellor in 1933. Rising inflation in the USA led to the 1929 Wall Street stock exchange collapse, resulting in the withdrawal of American capital from Germany. Then Japan initiated its expansionist Greater East Asia project. On 27th September 1940 a Tripartite Pact was agreed between Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Between 1939 and 1945, Hitler established 356 Jewish ghettos across his occupied territories. The largest ghetto was in Warsaw with around 400,000 inhabitants. These ghettos were enclosed sites under constant surveillance, and anyone found trying to escape was executed. The ghettos were a transit zone for the death camps. In May 1943 Hitler gave the command for the ghettos to be “liquidated”, and all of the inhabitants were to be deported and executed.

From 1940-1 Britain stood alone against Germany and its allies. British troops were defending their home skies against the Luftwaffe, the Atlantic Ocean against U boats, and they were combating German and Italian forces in the Mediterranean. Some leaders have an insight into the struggle between good and evil, and they choose to do the right thing, whatever the cost. Churchill was such a leader, he said; “… it is better to perish than live as slaves.”

What has this got to do with the Normans? The legacy of the Dukes of Normandy, most notably William I, led to a system of government that eventually enabled Britain to build the largest land empire that has ever existed, and also to influence the development of the USA, in a way that created the combined forces necessary to defeat Germany, Italy, Japan, and Vichy France.

The first Duke of Normandy was Rollon, the Viking. He was given the land of Normandy, with a capital in Rouen, in 911 by the French King, Charles III, in return for a peaceable coexistence. Rollon converted to Christianity and was baptized. He died c.933 and is buried in Rouen Cathedral.

An effigy of Rollon, first Duke of Normandy, in Rouen Cathedral

When Robert I, the sixth Duke of Normandy, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1034 he made arrangements for William, his illegitimate son, to succeed him, should he not return. Robert I died on his return from Jerusalem. William, still a child, became the seventh Duke of Normandy. He also became a devout Christian. He initiated an ecclesiastical revival in Normandy, building great abbeys, monasteries, and cathedrals, in the Romanesque style. These Christian institutions became centres of excellence for learning and commerce. William also surrounded himself with a loyal group of barons, often the same people who were associated with the development of the new monasteries.

Edward the Confessor, King of England, had no heir but he had given instructions that his cousin William, Duke of Normandy, was to succeed him. In January 1066, Edward the Confessor died, and Harold – a powerful courtier but not a blood relation, seized the throne. After Harold’s coronation Hailey’s Comment appeared in the sky and many took this to be a portent of doom.

William now utilized the strength of Normandy to prepare to take the Crown of England. He convinced his barons to support him in return for English land and treasure. William then instructed his carpenters to take down the forests to build a great armada of over seven hundred ships that would carry his troops and horses across the English Channel. William’s ship had a banner blessed by the Pope and he firmly believed he was engaged in a holy war.

The epic story of how William secured the throne of England was made into the eleventh century equivalent of a blockbuster movie in the form of the Bayeux Tapestry. It’s been a box office hit for nearly one thousand years.

During the late Saxon period Winchester contained the largest concentration of Christian institutions north of the Alps. These were centres of excellence for religious thought, art, and learning, reflecting the same ideals as William’s ecclesiastical renaissance in Normandy. Edward the Confessor had been crowned in Winchester Cathedral. This may all help to explain why William also chose to be crowned, first of all, in Winchester’s Saxon cathedral. William was crowned for a second time on Christmas day, 1066, at Westminster Abbey in London.

William built himself a royal residence in a castle upon Roman ruins in Winchester, and he made the town a joint capital with London. Winchester was to remain as a royal residence for centuries.

William fundamentally altered the landownership and government of England. He created an exacting form of taxation with the Domesday Book (which can be viewed in the National Archives, Kew), and this enabled him to raise the funds needed for his large army, including mercenaries. William transformed the whole aristocratic structure of England to the benefit of his Norman barons.

The Norman aristocrats in England became like minor viceroys, with their own corps of officials. All of the great Norman families such as Beaumont, Tosny, and Montgomery held their lands by conditional tenure from William. It’s a system that fitted William’s imperial ambitions. He developed a form of land tenure for his barons and knights linked to their military service due to him on demand.

William, Duke of Normandy and King of England, was overlord. The feudal organization of William’s realm served to link together Normandy and England and to join together in a common purpose the Christian Anglo Norman peoples. Many of the Norman magnets continued to be the ruling families of Britain. They continued to take their seats in the House of Lords until Tony Blair’s government repealed the rights of hereditary peers.

The troops from the USA who were deployed for the D-Day landings were stationed at Peninsula Barracks and this is the exact site where William the Conqueror had built his royal residence in Winchester. In 1944 Churchill stood in the parade ground and rallied his American cousins, many of whom had Norman blood coursing through their veins. Church services were held on the ships before they departed to liberate Normandy in Operation Overlord.

Winston Churchill with US forces in 1944 preparing for D-Day landings at Peninsula Barracks, Winchester

Hitler knew that Britain and her allies would need to take the European Atlantic ports and so he had built “Fortress Europe”, which included a wall of defenses and mined beaches along the coast of France and the Low Countries.

On critical occasions George VI, (the Queen’s father), called his nation to pray for victory (as did William I before the battle of Hastings). At these times the throne, the government and the people were united in petitioning God. On Tuesday 6th June 1944 the Germans decided not to send out their normal sea patrols or air reconnaissance because of a battering storm. However, a great armada of American, British, and Canadian ships came out of that storm. Weather stations in the North Atlantic had revealed to the Allies that calmer weather was coming on the 6th June, and so that was the day of their D-Day landings.

The US General Bradley said; “That capricious change in the weather was our Trojan horse.”

The D-Day landings involved leaders from the same families as in 1066, but this time crossing the English Channel in the opposite direction. Field Marshall Montgomery could trace his lineage back to the Montgomery who fought alongside the Conqueror in 1066. It had taken the Dukes of Normandy 878 year to build up the international political and military might necessary to defeat what Churchill referred to as: “…a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.”

The Allied forces accomplished the largest combined operation in history. Within a few weeks, there were two million soldiers battling for the land of Normandy.

The city of Caen, where William had established his capital in Normandy, was ruined by the allied air raids of 18th July involving over 2000 bombers. However, the Abbaye aux Hommes (shown at the top of this article), the magnificent monastery built by William in the centre of Caen, survived. The Allies had agreed with the French resistance that the building would be protected and that civilians should be moved into it.

Within three months of landing in Normandy, the Allies had practically freed all of France and the final victory was close to hand.

 

 

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4 Comments

  • Martin McDonald says:

    A really interesting angle, Nick.

    Not sure that you mention it, but Field Marshall Montgomery could apparently trace his lineage back to the Montgomery who fought alongside William the Conqueror.

    I believe that Caen suffered greatest damage in later air raids, rather than those immediately following the landing. It’s military importance was probably unchanged from the times of William the Conqueror; to get anywhere in that area you really need to be able to go through Caen. The bocage to the west and the river valley to the east make flanking much harder. That’s why the Germans held it so tenaciously and why the British bombed it. Even now, all roads in the area seem to lead to it. Truly the crucible of the battle.

    It’s also worth pointing out that not only was the Battle of Normandy decisive in beating Hitler, it was critical to the Western Allies getting into large areas of Europe before the Soviets did. Had we lost that battle not only would the war have lasted longer but more of Europe would have been subjected to the Soviet oppression. Imagine how different things would have been had the Soviets controlled France.

  • Steve Lightfoot says:

    Some of the inhabitants of Caen were reported to be quite resentful of the sacrifice that the city was required to make for the liberation of France. The population was reduced to 17,000 from 60,000 before the invasion, and there were many civilian casualties. The bombing of 7th July, just before Operation Charnwood was particularly heavy.

    In the historical context, you can see how it was worth it, but had I been a father of dead children, killed in the raids, I’d just be wishing it had never happened at all.

  • Joel Goodlet says:

    Nice article Nick. It’s fascinating to see the lines of history overlapping and coalescing at crucial moments. It’s also clear to see that when a nation comes together to pray amazing things happen.

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